The Founders on Public Religious Expression

David Barton

David Barton is the Founder and President of  WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization which distributes historical, legal, and statistical information; and helps citizens become active in their local schools and communities. (WallBuilders is a name taken from the biblical book of Nehemiah.) He has been appointed to develop history texts for the nationally influential Texas and California school boards. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oral Roberts University and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Pensacola Christian College. Barton David is the recipient of several national and international awards, including the Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor; the George Washington Medal of Honor; several Angel Awards, and a Telly Award for excellence in media and educational medium; Who’s Who in America and many more. David has authored numerous books on historical, legal, and educational issues, is a frequent consultant to state and federal legislators, and has written amicus briefs in several cases at the U. S. Supreme Court.

Recently, there have been objections to public religious expressions by legislative chaplains supported through State budgets. These objections to legislative chaplains are very similar to one lodged with the U. S. Congress in 1852. In that challenge, the Committees on the Judiciary in both the House and the Senate each delivered a report pertinent to this discussion.

For example, in the House Report on March 27, 1854, it noted:

There certainly can be no doubt as to the practice of employing chaplains in deliberative bodies previous to the adoption of the Constitution. We are, then, prepared to see if any change was made in that respect in the new order of affairs. . . . On the 1st day of May [1789], Washington’s first speech was read to the House, and the first business after that speech was the appointment of Dr. Linn as chaplain. By whom was this plan made? Three out of six of that joint committee were members of the Convention that framed the Constitution. Madison, Ellsworth, and Sherman passed directly from the hall of the [Constitutional] Convention to the hall of Congress. Did they not know what was constitutional? . . . It seems to us that the men who would raise the cry of danger in this state of things would cry fire on the 39th day of a general deluge. . . . But we beg leave to rescue ourselves from the imputation of asserting that religion is not needed to the safety of civil society. It must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests. Laws will not have permanence or power without the sanction of religious sentiment—without a firm belief that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues and punish our vices. [1]

The House Judiciary Committee therefore concluded:

Whereas, the people of these United States, from their earliest history to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence and are indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge in the most public manner their reverence for God: therefore, Resolved, That the daily sessions of this body be opened with prayer and that the ministers of the Gospel in this city are hereby requested to attend and alternately perform this solemn duty. [2]

On January 19, 1853, the Senate Judiciary Committee delivered its report:

The whole view of the petitioners seems founded upon mistaken conceptions of the meaning of the Constitution. . . . If [the use of chaplains] had been a violation of the Constitution, why was not its character seen by the great and good men who were coeval with the government, who were in Congress and in the Presidency when this constitutional amendment was adopted? They, if any one did, understood the true purport of the amendment, and were bound, by their duty and their oath, to resist the introduction or continuance of chaplains, if the views of the petitioners were correct. But they did no such thing; and therefore we have the strongest reason to suppose the notion of the petitioner to be unfounded. . . . They had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an irreligious people; they did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character as legislators; they did not intend to spread over all the public authorities and the whole public action of the nation the dead and revolting spectacle of atheistical apathy. [3]

Interestingly, a century later, the U. S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion, declaring:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. . . . When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. [4]

Clearly, previous generations did not find difficulty with paid chaplains. In fact, even Thomas Jefferson would disagree in several areas with those who often invoke him as an authority for a secular public arena, for Jefferson himself regularly violated the bland “civil religion” standards which many secularists promote. Consider:

Furthermore, Jefferson would especially disagree with those who believe that public prayers should be non-sectarian and omit specific references to Jesus. Jefferson believed that every individual should pray according to his own beliefs. As Jefferson explained:

[The] liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will [is] a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support. [15] (emphasis added)

Critics, therefore, would be particularly troubled by President Jefferson’s words that:

No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example. [16]

James Madison also encouraged public officials to declare openly and publicly their Christian beliefs and testimony — as when he wrote to William Bradford (who became Attorney General under President George Washington):

I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of religion or against temporal enjoyments, even the most rational and manly, than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and [who] are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ; and I wish you may give in your evidence in this way. [17]

Additionally, throughout his Presidency, Madison issued several proclamations for public days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, [18] and like Jefferson, President Madison also attended church at the Capitol, thus publicly endorsing religion in official arenas. [19]

So, not only did Jefferson and Madison endorse religion in the public arena, they were even willing publicly to endorse Christian prayers in the public arena rather than the bland politically-correct civic prayers desired by critics of public prayers.

There are many additional framers of our government who are also qualified to speak to the issue of religious expressions in official and political arenas. For example:

There are many additional framers of our documents with similarly pertinent declarations—some more strongly worded, some less strongly worded, and some the equivalent of those above.

However, just because so many framers specifically endorsed Christianity did not mean that they excluded other religious faiths, for such was not the case. In fact, evangelical Christian Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration and a member of the presidential administrations of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison), in discussing educational policies in public schools, declared:

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohamed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament. . . . [A]ll its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil government. [29]

However, while Dr. Rush was outspoken about his personal Christian preferences, he was also gratified with the religious tolerance exercised in America. In fact, in his description of the federal parade in Philadelphia following the adoption of the Constitution, Rush happily declared:

The rabbi of the Jews locked in the arms of two ministers of the Gospel was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem! [30]

And as Constitution signer Richard Dobbs Spaight similarly explained:

As to the subject of religion. . . . no power is given to the general government to interfere with it at all. . . . No sect is preferred to another. Every man has a right to worship the Supreme Being in the manner he thinks proper. [31]

The “every man” protections mentioned not only by Jefferson and Spaight but by so many other framers would include protections for those chaplains who wish to offer prayers in whatever manner they may choose.

The historical evidence is clear: those who oppose legislative chaplaincies (paid or unpaid), or who decry sectarian public prayers, lack any broad historical basis for their arguments. Such opposition certainly cannot be justified in the name the Founding Fathers. 


[1] Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives Made During the First Session of the Thirty-Third Congress (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1854).

[2] Id.

[3] The Reports of the Committees of the Senate of the United States for the Second Session of the Thirty-Second Congress, 1852-53 (Washington: Robert Armstrong, 1853).

[4] Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U. S. 306, 312-314 (1952).

[5] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Bishop Carroll on September 3, 1801 (in the Library of Congress, #19966).

[6]American State Papers, Walter Lowrie and Matthew St. Claire Clarke, editors (Washington, D. C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), Vol. IV, p. 687; see also Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U. S. 38, at 103 (1985), Rehnquist, J. (dissenting); see also, The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, Richard Peters, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1846), Vol. VII, p. 79, Article III, “A Treaty Between the United States and the Kaskaskia Tribe of Indians,” December 23, 1803; Vol. VII, p. 88, Article IV, “Treaty with the Wyandots, etc.,” 1805; Vol. VII, p. 102, Article II, “Treaty with the Cherokees,” 1806.

[7] Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United States (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1853), Sixth Congress, p. 797, December 4, 1800.

[8] See the records recently reprinted by James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D. C.: Library of Congress, 1998), p. 84.

[9] Id. at 89.

[10] Id. at 89; see also John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), Vol. I, p. 265, October 23, 1803.

[11] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, editor (Washington, D. C: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, p. 404, to Dr. Thomas Cooper on November 2, 1822.

[12] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula at New Orleans on May 15, 1804, original in possession of the New Orleans Parish.

[13] Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, editor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), Vol. I, pp. 494-497, from “Report on a Seal for the United States, with Related Papers,” August 20, 1776.

[14] For example, his presidential act of October 18, 1804, from an original document in our possession.

[15] Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XVI, p. 291, to Captain John Thomas on November 18, 1801.

[16] Hutson (see n. 8) at p. 96, quoting from a handwritten history in possession of the Library of Congress, “Washington Parish, Washington City,” by Rev. Ethan Allen.

[17] James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, William T. Hutchinson, editor (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1962), Vol. I, p. 66, to William Bradford on September 25, 1773.

[18]A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, James D. Richardson, compiler (Published by the Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, p. 513 on July 9, 1812, pp. 532-533 on July 23, 1813, p. 558 on November 16, 1814, and pp. 560-561 on March 4, 1815.

[19] Hutson (see n. 8) at p. 96. These were the actions of Madison while he was a public official; yet, late in his life (The William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series, October 1946, Vol. III, No. 4, Madison’s “Detached Memoranda,” edited by Elizabeth Fleet, pp. 534-568), he apparently retreated from many of these positions he long held. It may be that Mr. Pramenko only knows this latter part of Mr. Madison’s life.

[20] Elias Boudinot, The Life, Public Service, Addresses, and Letters of Elias Boudinot, LL.D., President of the Continental Congress, J. J. Boudinot, editor (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896), Vol. I, p. 21, to the First Provincial Congress of New Jersey.

[21] James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, Henry D. Gilpin, editor (Washington: Langtree & O’Sullivan, 1840), Vol. II, p. 985, June 28, 1787.

[22] Independent Chronicle (Boston), November 2, 1780, last page; see also Abram English Brown, John Hancock, His Book (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1898), p. 269.

[23] The Speeches of the Different Governors to the Legislature of the State of New York, Commencing with those of George Clinton and Continued Down to the Present Time (Albany: J. B. Van Steenbergh, 1825), p. 66, Governor John Jay on November 4, 1800.

[24] William Jay, The Life of John Jay: With Selections From His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), Vol. I, pp. 457-458, to the Committee of the Corporation of the City of New York on June 29, 1826.

[25] Henry Laurens, The Papers of Henry Laurens, George C. Rogers Jr. and David R. Chestnutt, editors (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), Vol. XI, p. 200, in a letter to Oliver Hart and Elharon Winchester on March 30, 1776.

[26] Charles C. Jones, Biographical Sketches of the Delegates from Georgia to the Continental Congress (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1891), pp. 6-7.

[27] George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States . . . Preparatory to his Declination (Baltimore: George and Henry S. Keatinge, 1796), pp. 22-23.

[28] John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. IV, p. 270, from his “Sermon Delivered at Public Thanksgiving After Peace.”

[29] Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and Samuel F. Bradford, 1798), p. 8, “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.”

[30] Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L. H. Butterfield, editor (Princeton: American Philosophical Society, 1951), Vol. I, p. 474, to Elias Boudinot on July 9, 1788.

[31] The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Jonathan Elliot, editor (Washington, D. C.: Jonathan Elliot, 1836), Vol. IV, p. 208, Richard Dobbs Spaight, July 30, 1788.

Copyright Wallbuilders © 2003. Used by permission.